March 6, 2009

Trustees Discuss Cornell’s Future

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In advance of their full meeting Friday, Cornell’s Board of Trustees met in committees yesterday to discuss a range of topics, including federal research funding and a re-examination of the University’s policy on conflicts of interest and standards of ethical conduct.
In accordance with New York State’s Open Meetings Law, several committees held open sessions yesterday before subsequently convening in closed sessions, which were not available to the media.
At the trustees’ Committee on Governmental Relations, Cornell’s office of government and community relations updated members about how the University will be impacted by recent federal legislation.
Cornell hopes to receive its share of federal “pork” — funding earmarked for special projects — in the Congress’s Omnibus Appropriations bill. Most significantly for the University, the bill includes $2.2 million earmarked for Cornell’s Grape Genetics Research Center at Geneva.
The bill also earmarks funding for several other Cornell research projects, including human nutrition, computational agriculture, food safety and breast cancer environmental risk factors.
The House approved this Omnibus bill last week, and the Senate was scheduled to vote on the measure yesterday. However, Senate Republicans, objecting that the $410-billion bill is too costly and filled with too many pet projects, forced the Senate Majority leadership last night to postpone the vote until Monday, the Associated Press reported.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been vocal in his opposition to the bill, calling it “a swollen, wasteful, egregious example of out-of-control spending” and urging President Barack Obama to veto it, according to the Associated Press.McCain has specifically called out Cornell’s Grapes Genetic Research Center project as an example of wasteful spending, ranking it as number four on his Top 10 list of the worst examples of “pork” in the bill.
The University, however, maintains that the project is meritorious and should be funded.
“We have provided our Congressional supporters with talking points on the merits of this facility and the research that will be conducted in it,” the office of government and community relations wrote in a report given to trustees yesterday.
The University has previously stated that its policy is to only accept governmental earmarks for projects and research in fields that lack peer-review or competitive mechanisms to obtain funding, such as the United States Department of Agriculture. In contrast, in other fields of research, the University relies on institutions like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation to receive competitive peer-reviewed grants.
Jacquie Powers, Director of Cornell’s Federal Relations, also reported to the trustees about the economic stimulus package signed into law by President Barack Obama on Feb. 17.
As a large research institution, Cornell will benefit from the increased amount of federal research money in the stimulus package, Powers told the Committee. Students at Cornell will also benefit from the legislation’s increased funding to federal financial aid programs like Pell Grants and Federal Work Study.
Later yesterday at the Audit Committee meeting, trustees discussed the University’s policy regarding conflicts of interest and standards of ethical conduct.
While University Counsel and Secretary of the Corporation James Mingle described the current policy as “thoughtfully developed documents” that “has generally served the University well,” he reported to the Committee about an ongoing task force of trustees charged with examining the policy and suggesting changes.
Mingle explained that the University currently has a “highly de-centralized” approach to managing conflicts of interest and the task force would explore installing a more centralized process.
“We have bumped into this problem at Cornell,” President David Skorton told the Audit Committee. “Unfortunately we have had problems about disclosure of conflicts,” he said, referring to a report last year, which revealed that lung cancer research conducted at Weill Cornell Medical College was funded by a tobacco company. The story was first reported by The New York Times last March.
“We should have a single-point of contact for risk management [of conflicts of interest],” he said. “There should be a single point of accountability.”
University Auditor Michael Dickinson also expressed a desire to change the University policy regarding conflicts of interest.
“Our policy [at Cornell’s Ithaca campus] is [asking] ‘do you have a conflict’ versus ‘what are your business relationships?’” Dickson said. “I am going to personally push for [the later] … Some faculty may find this intrusive, but the outside world is not going to let us be the own judge of our conflicts [of interest].”
The Committee also raised the issue of whether or not the Board of Trustees itself would be subject to the University’s standards of ethical conduct policy. The Committee plans to revisit the issue, although Skorton said that he would be inclined to say that the trustees should be covered under the policy.